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OPINION | BRADLEY GITZ: The requisites of democracy

by Bradley Gitz | April 19, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

At the heart of the criticism of Georgia's new voting law is a misunderstanding regarding liberal democracy, or, more precisely, what is required to sustain it.

That misunderstanding involves a failure to fully grasp the way in which perceptions of vote fraud can undermine the political power and legitimacy ("rightful authority") that flow from the ballot box. Because nothing diminishes support for democracy more than the belief that a citizen's vote was canceled out by an illegally cast one.

False accusations about fraud from sore losers are to be expected, but such accusations gain traction only when large portions of the population believe we have failed to put sufficient safeguards in place to prevent it; that out of a misguided loosening of the rules in pursuit of ever higher turnout we might have loosened them too much.

More democracy (defined as ever-easier voter access and always more votes) might in such circumstances actually work to undermine democracy.

If the rules had to be loosened somewhat to provide sufficient voter access during a pandemic, in itself a debatable proposition, logic suggests that they should be tightened back up to some extent once it is over (rather than embraced as a new normal, with any resistance dismissed as "voter suppression").

The claim that little fraud actually occurs misses the point because we lose faith in the process not when evidence of fraud turns up here or there in a vast land that has held more elections of all kinds than any in history but when evidence emerges that our political leaders are no longer as interested in preventing it.

As citizens and voters we need to have an unshakeable conviction that those running our elections (and usually themselves put in office by them) are doing everything possible to minimize fraud out of an equally unshakeable commitment to our democratic order, rather than blithely dismiss concerns about ballot integrity as part of a nefarious plot to uphold white supremacy.

We don't want to have to wonder about how much fraud actually occurs because to do so instantly raises questions about the results of our democratic process and thus the legitimacy of our system of self-government. We recognize that there can be no iron-clad means of preventing all forms of fraud, but still need to believe that those who govern us, whatever else they disagree about, can at least agree on the fundamental rules of the game, including that some kinds of voting restrictions for the sake of combating fraud are necessary.

When some of those leaders use outright lies (as with Joe Biden's "four Pinocchios" from The Washington Post for his claims on Georgia's law) and the all-purpose cudgel of "racism" to prevent reasonable measures that overwhelming majorities of Americans support (like voter ID) suspicions regarding a lack of conviction in resisting fraud can't help but arise.

Not every voting restriction constitutes an effort at voter suppression, or else we would be engaged in it when we prevent 12-year olds from voting (a majority of Democrats in the House of Representatives actually recently supported lowering the voting age to 16, suggesting both a peculiar theory of democracy and a lack of familiarity with the cognitive capacity and emotional maturity of 16-year olds).

Different people will have, as with so much else political, different opinions about voting procedures and how loose or tight restrictions governing them should be, but those differences should reflect disagreements over principle, not an effort to acquire partisan advantage by constantly changing up electoral rules.

As a logical proposition, however much fraud exists, we cannot continue to loosen the rules in a way that makes it both harder to detect and easier to commit without getting more of it. Worse still, we might not have a means of realizing the nature and extent of our folly until it is too late; until fraud has become so pervasive as to have permanently corroded our once-solid faith in our elections and each other as citizens united in a great political experiment.

Fraud can be considered analogous in this sense to other forms of cheating, including honor-code systems for academic work at colleges--once some students come to believe that other students are cheating and getting away with it, they feel that by adhering to the rules and being honorable and honest they are putting themselves at a competitive disadvantage and hurting their prospects for admission to that selective law or medical school they have their hearts set on. So they rationalize cheating as well, to the point where everyone is suddenly doing it because they assume everyone else is and the code becomes something only suckers believe in.

The preservation of democracy depends to a much greater extent on ballot integrity than it does how many people voted in a particular election or how easy it was for them to cast their ballots.

The ugliest incident in our especially ugly post-election occurred when the president of the United States called the Georgia secretary of state and asked him to "find" thousands of votes. He did this because he believed that the other side had been busy finding them.

And so it goes.


Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.

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